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Labor Pains

I know I am always bashing my hometown newspaper, but I wake up with it in the morning (we’ve had to cancel the New York Times as an economy measure) and wince at its coverage.  This morning, the paper has a story on AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Rich Trumka’s likely ascension to the head of the federation after President John Sweeney retires this year.

The story, headlined “Trumka Hopes to Mend the AFL-CIO,” reports that the “central question is whether he can heal the rift that occurred four years ago when the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters (among others) left the AFL-CIO to form a new labor coalition known as Change to Win.”  Trumka says, in the words of reporter Chris Cillizza, that his “background prepares him well for the task of reunification.”

Really?  The story fails to mention that Trumka himself was one of the reasons for the split.  In 1996, James P. Hoffa ran for president of the Teamsters against the incumbent Ron Carey.  Carey won the election, but the results were thrown out when federal officials discovered that Carey campaign people were illicitly using Teamster funds for his campaign.  Carey’s campaign would send the money to individuals in other organizations ostensibly for other purposes and the individuals and organizations would arrange for the money to be donated back to the Carey campaign.  

According to a statement made by Carey’s former campaign manager, Trumka and the AFL-CIO were involved in this money-laundering scheme.  At Trumka’s request, $150,000 was sent to the AFL-CIO for get-out-the-vote efforts in the 1996 general election.  The money was then sent to Citizen Action, a community organizing group, which passed it back to the Carey campaign.  While Trumka was mentioned in the federal complaint, he was not indicted.  And he refused to testify in the federal investigation on fifth amendment grounds.  So nothing has been proven, but you would probably have a hard time finding a labor official – and particularly one at the Teamsters – who doesn’t believe Trumka was laundering money for Carey.  

Hoffa, of course, went on to win a new election, and has remained president of the Teamsters.  He and SEIU President Andy Stern were prime movers behind the split in the AFL-CIO.  And it is very unlikely that Hoffa would be willing to return to an AFL-CIO with Trumka at its head. Very, very  unlikely.   By elevating Trumka, the federation is pretty much insuring that the AFL-CIO, which lost a quarter of its membership in the split, will not be mended.  But you wouldn’t know that from reading this morning’s Washington Post.

And while I’m at it, let me say something else about Trumka and the AFL-CIO.  John Sweeney and Trumka came into office in 1995 promising to reverse the labor movement’s decline that had occurred under Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 16.4 million workers were members of unions in 1995, making up 14.9 percent of the labor force.  It’s now 16.09 million, or 12.4 percent.  That’s not a reversal of decline. It’s a continuing decline.   And during that time, the labor movement has splintered and fragmented. Nine unions have left the AFL-CIO.  So it’s really hard to make a case that Trumka’s past experience at the federation promises future success.

There is a certain d